Visual Lies (GrumpyTeach, Eps. 1)

Visual learning is what students will turn to after they realize that being diagnosed for ADHD isn't as easy as getting a weed card in California. That might actually be unfair, but it's a good line, so - screw it - it stays. Seriously, though, they're struggling in class, and trying to figure out why. Somewhere along the way they learn about the theory of multiple intelligences (or hear about it, vaguely) and it suddenly becomes clear.

“The instructor just isn’t teaching the way I learn things,” they say “I need visual aids, pictures, illustrations, charts…”

“Better study habits?”

“What? No, don’t be silly.”

As a chemistry teacher, I call bullshit on two fronts. First, they’re missing the fact that every equation, structure, chart etc. is a visual aid. I can tell you that a gaseous nitrogen molecule can combine with three molecules of gaseous hydrogen to form 2 molecules of gaseous ammonia. Or I could just show you this…

N2(g) + 3H2(g) → 2NH3(g)

Likewise, molecules aren’t really made up of little colored balls connected to each other by little rods. That’s something chemists do to show you what (we think) a molecule’s structure looks like because we can’t actually show you the real thing since they’re only nanometers in size at best.

Secondly, in a traditional table of contents, the last third of a General Chemistry I class deals with structures, bonding theories, and other things that are purely qualitative (math-free) and those chapters are loaded with more illustrations and diagrams than any other part of the semester. But the students who give me the “I’m a visual learner line” as a reason why they were struggling during the first two-thirds of the course usually don’t fare much better, and sometimes they do worse.

I'm not saying that visual learning isn't a real thing. In fact, everyone is to some degree or another. But not everything in life can be laid out like Lego instructions. Ikea tried that, and look how well that turned out. it makes sense.